Brisbane Blaze and NSW Pride meet in a genuine top of the table blockbuster in the final round of the season and Blaze and Kookaburras midfielder Jake Whetton is as excited as anyone about it.
Both the Blaze and Pride enter the final round undefeated and the way the Sultana Bran Hockey One schedule has panned out, you could not ask for a more fitting finale to the regular season than the two standout teams in the men’s competition meeting to see who will finish top heading into the finals.
Not that it needs anymore hype, but adding even more anticipation to the showdown at Queensland’s State Hockey Centre is that it is State of Origin hockey style. Queensland against New South Wales, and no one from either state needs any education on this bitter rivalry.
We caught up with Whetton as he prepares to run out in front of what deserves to be a bumper crowd on Saturday. Tickets for the double header are available through Ticketek and the matches can be seen LIVE on Kayo. The women’s match starts at 3:00pm before the men’s match at 4:30pm local time in Brisbane.
Saturday’s top of the table clash against the NSW Pride is arguably the match of the round if not the season. How pumped are you for the game?
JW: “I’m super excited. NSW Pride have been going really well and we both go into the last match undefeated. I guess you couldn’t have really scripted it better in terms of how it has turned out heading into the last round so I’m really looking forward to playing them. I was born and bred in Brisbane and played all my junior hockey there, so to be able to go back and play games for the city I grew up in is really special for me. There is obviously a fair bit of history with the Queensland and New South Wales rivalry so I can’t wait to get out there in front of our home crowd.”
Obviously everyone knows how big State of Origin is between Queensland and New South Wales in the rugby league. Do you think that spills over to other sports and in the hockey arena?
JW: “I do. Rugby league is obviously the big one but when the two states do play against each other in other sports it’s always a really big game. We certainly see it as a state of origin contest and New South Wales have always been a really tough opponent to play against. We’ve had some close games with them in the past so I’m really looking forward to playing in one again.”
Both teams are littered with Kookaburras so there are guys that you train with a lot from NSW Pride who are in the national team. How do you approach games knowing you are going to come up against some of your Kookaburras teammates?
JW: “I guess the thing both teams get is a little bit of knowledge of how some of the opposition players go about it. We understand how some of the Pride guys play and vice-versa. So having a bit of knowledge helps but they have the knowledge on us as well so that almost cancels each other out. Hopefully our game plan beats their game plan on the day.”
One of the things that has been noticeable throughout the season is how seriously all of the guys take it and the passion shown by players representing their respective states and Hockey One teams. Is that how you’ve see it?
JW: “Definitely. I think it goes back to your junior days and the amount of time you spent playing for your home town and then for your state. The pride that you have to represent your home state is really high and I think the thing with Queensland in the past is the legacy that the teams before us left and what they were able to achieve. To be able to continue that culture that Queensland have with the way we go about things, you want to be able to keep that going. I remember when I first came into the group, everything came back to the team and now you want to give that to the younger guys. I’m sure that’s probably the same with all the states. We’re out there to win and as soon as you cross the line it’s hell for leather.”
Similarly to the Pride, Brisbane Blaze’s Men’s team has hummed along this season. What has been the key to the team performing so well?
JW: “Firstly, the 25 goals we’ve scored sounds like a lot but you have to take into consideration the one-on-one conversions where you’re getting two goals if you convert after scoring a field goal. For us this year, we’ve had a couple of games where we’ve struggled to score field goals, yet our penalty corner routine has worked really well. Then in other games it has been the opposite, so finding that balance of having both of those areas working is something that has been frustrating but at the same time we have been able to convert in both areas at different times. At the other end, we pride ourselves on not letting goals in and not allowing teams to have goal scoring opportunities. Most games are won on defence and particularly in this competition, it is such an important part of the game not letting the opposition score field goals because two goals can become four and four can become six really quickly.”
What has been your take on the rule tweak that allows a conversion opportunity after a field goal is scored?
JW: “As an international player for the Kookaburras, I really like it. I believe there are going to be games at the Olympics that come down to a shootout and the better we and the goalie’s get at them, the more practise we get while under fatigue, for us is a great initiative in this competition. As a supporter it might be a bit difficult to understand initially, but from a player point of view, having the chance to do that is great. It also means teams are playing a little bit differently. They are not looking for corners as much, you are more looking to play on and let the field goal opportunity happen. So it throws up some different ways of playing that you have to approach and combat from the opposition.”
There a number of Kookaburras including you who are based in Perth and fly away every weekend to play Hockey One meaning you don’t get a lot of chances to train with your Blaze teammates. How much of a challenge has that posed?
JW: “Definitely during the first few rounds it was a little bit difficult. I guess the way the coaching staff at the Blaze want to play is tweaked a bit from how we play in the national program, so to be able to adapt and change was difficult to start with, but with the Brisbane Blaze guys, we’ve got six or seven guys who have been flying in from Perth so that’s a fair core of players within the group who still have a pretty good connection. A lot of us have played a number of seasons together for Queensland so that has helped as well.”
Finally, you have been nominated for the Queensland Academy of Sport Peter Lacey Award for Sporting Excellence at the Queensland Sports Awards coming up. How does it feel to be recognised and one of the finalists?
JW: “I’m very proud to be nominated. It’s not something you really ever think about and to see my name pop up with some of the amazing athletes from Queensland is something pretty special. I feel very honoured and privileged to be nominated.”
Thanks Jake. All the best for the rest of the season and bring on Saturday!